Kenya: The great Raila Odinga steeplechase

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 10:46, updated on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 11:54

Kenyan opposition leader Odinga to unveil 2022 presidential race candidature in Nairobi
Kenya's Opposition leader Raila Odinga reacts during the Azimio la Umoja (Declaration of Unity) rally to unveil his August 2022 Presidential race candidature at the Moi International Sports centre in Kasarani, Nairobi, Kenya December 10, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Longtime Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga has announced his fifth attempt at the presidency in the forthcoming general election slated for August 2022. He has been at the core of Kenyan politics for more than a quarter of a century, but has consistently failed to clinch power in three attempts that successively appeared to be the best shot. What does Raila bring to the table this time round and what hurdles must he jump to finally clinch Kenya’s top seat?

When he turned up at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on 10 December, he had the aura, the crowds, what looked like a presidential smile and a traditional fly whisk to wave at his supporters, who had gathered to listen to him.

The last time a Kenyan politician used a fly whisk was in February 2020 – Raila waved it as he bade goodbye to Kenya’s second President Daniel Moi, whose body lay in state in parliament. Another politician who used the fly whisk was Raila’s father, Jaramogi Oginga, when he bade farewell to Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta following his death in August 1978.

This time round, however, Raila was not carrying a fly whisk for a state funeral – he was declaring his bid for the presidency. The significance of the fly whisk dates back to the days of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, who would greet people with his fly whisk. Oginga was Jomo’s first vice president. Today, the sons of the two leaders are walking the journey of political friendship in the veil of healing historical political wounds.

Unity convention

For three months, Raila has been rallying the masses during regional meetings across the country in a newfound clarion dubbed Azimio la Umoja (Swahili for resolution for unity). The meeting in Nairobi comprised Raila’s ardent supporters and newfound partners. Part of the entourage was eight ministers from Kenyatta’s cabinet.

It was a significant event for Raila’s family. “I want to release you, to perform and to do what you need to do for the multitude of people who are here and those who are watching who are not here,” his wife Ida said. “I know you won’t let them down, and […] to the people of Kenya I release Raila to you today… These are your people, these are your people. Take care of them.”

Today, I boldly declare that I am neither repentant nor regretful of my own experience in the fight for a liberated Kenya.

As if on cue, Raila captured the moment by reflecting on his journey over the past five decades. “I stand here before you today, a proud son of Kenya, a liberation fighter and servant of the people for the last 50 years.” Raila is renowned for his role in the fight against President Moi’s autocratic rule and the liberalisation of Kenyan politics when multi-party democracy was reintroduced in 1991.

“Today, I boldly declare that I am neither repentant nor regretful of my own experience in the fight for a liberated Kenya,” said Raila. “I bear the scars of liberation with pride, and embrace the blood, sweat and tears they cost me.”

History of torture

Raila was incarcerated for at least six years on suspicion of plotting a failed coup attempt against Moi in 1982. He was charged with treason and detained without trial. The opposition chief reminisced the events of that decade. “Relatives died, including my beloved mother and my own brother, and I never got the chance to say goodbye,” he said in reference to his mother’s death in 1984, while he was in prison.

Sabina Chege, an MP from Muranga County in the Mt. Kenya region, says: “(Raila) has done a lot of work for this nation. He has fought […] for the constitution […]. He has also become a statesman, a man who has matured in politics.”

However, Gladys Boss, an MP from Uasin Gishu in Rift Valley – the political bedrock of Deputy President William Ruto, believes Raila has lost his political appeal. “I feel sorry for Raila,” Boss says. “He is no longer the Raila we used to know. He is no longer the Raila who fought for human rights, who fought for the 2010 Constitution. Today you cannot recognise him.”

Kenyatta factor in Raila’s success

Since Raila’s political truce with President Kenyatta in March 2018, Ruto and his supporters have been on a continuous warpath against the duo. They are especially bitter towards Raila, whom they see as having rocked the Jubilee Party boat to the extent that Kenyatta no longer considers Ruto as his choice for the 2022 presidential race.

“It is clear that Raila is a quasi-head of state. He is a co-president,” Boss says. “That is how he has been operating since that handshake in 2017. We know that he is a state project.”

At the Kasarani event, the presence of Kenyatta’s henchmen – from cabinet secretaries to MPs allied to the president and the Jubilee party leaders – left no doubt that the Kenyatta–Raila partnership is solid.

He (Raila) was running on his own and with other people behind him. This is the first time we are seeing Raila now going to be supported by cartels, tycoons and boardrooms. Raila has never been a boardroom politician.

The apparent backing by the state has now confounded both Raila’s supporters and opponents. For the opponents, they are uncertain of the impact as it may herald the unseen hand in Kenyan politics, infamously known as the deep state.

For Raila’s supporters, they are still bothered by the 2002-failed state project that was then Uhuru Kenyatta. At the time, then President Moi fronted the young Kenyatta to succeed him under the independence party, KANU. The project flopped, securing only 31% of the vote against Mwai Kibaki’s 62%. Raila, on the other hand, was instrumental in propelling Kibaki to the presidency.

Burden of history

Some of Raila’s supporters however warn that though ‘Project Uhuru’ flopped in 2002, the beneficiary at the time was a political novice, while Raila is a veteran politician. Boss, an ardent supporter of Ruto, believes that Raila’s dalliance with the state could cost him. “He (Raila) was running on his own and with other people behind him. This is the first time we are seeing Raila now going to be supported by cartels, tycoons and boardrooms. Raila has never been a boardroom politician.”

On 8 December, a section of businessmen from Mt. Kenya region (Kenyatta’s political backyard) endorsed Raila’s bid for the presidency. “The purpose of this event is to host the forthcoming president, the fifth, as he proceeds to Kasarani for Azimio la Umoja,” said Peter Munga, chairman of the Mt. Kenya Foundation. Raila attended the event that also provided a platform for Kenyatta’s men to declare their support for him.

“’Azimio la Umoja’ guarantees the continuity of the legacy and projects implemented by President Uhuru Kenyatta,” said Peter Munya, one of the ministers allied to Kenyatta. “The people of Mt. Kenya have no confidence in sweet-talking people who want to take advantage of our problems and use them as fodder for electioneering without offering complex solutions.”

Munya was referring to Ruto who has been campaigning for the presidency through his ‘bottom-up economic model’ platform that seeks to uplift smaller and informal businesses.

Mt. Kenya factor

According to Raila, there is a great need to avoid polarised contests that have defined Kenyan politics since 2007, of which he has been on one side of the divide. “I am not running for president to oppose anyone, but to propose better policies,” he said.  “I am in this race to mold one indivisible nation. I am not at war with personalities; I am at war with ideologies that would lead this nation in the wrong direction.”

We told lies about him (Raila). We ruined his reputation, a lot. I can tell you today that we were telling lies. It was all politics.

Meanwhile, Ruto’s campaign appears to have gained momentum in Mt. Kenya region with repeated polls showing him ahead of Raila in the area. In November 2021, a poll conducted by research firm TIFA showed Ruto ahead, with 38% preference nationally, against Raila’s preference of 23%. In the Mt. Kenya region that has emerged as the ‘political bride” of 2022, Raila trailed Ruto at 10% and 53% respectively.

Though some may argue that Raila was yet to declare his candidature at the time of the poll, now that he has, he must strive to convince the region that has traditionally voted against him in at least three elections since 2007. The resentment against Raila runs deep among a sizable segment of Mt. Kenya voters.

Francis Kimemia, a governor from the Mt. Kenya region, told a political gathering in Nyeri County on 27 November that they had disparaged Raila for many years. “We told lies about him (Raila). We ruined his reputation, a lot. I can tell you today that we were telling lies. It was all politics.”

Another leader, David Murathe, the vice chairperson of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, told the Kasarani gathering: “We went to the mountain with propaganda against Raila, we will go back there with the truth to unlock the lies we told.”

How Raila’s supporters use the remaining seven months to undo the damage caused in the region will determine his chances at the ballot.

Political baggage

Another hurdle that Raila must jump is the changing dynamics of political leanings of regions. In 2013 and 2017, Raila enjoyed the backing of western Kenya as well as the Coastal and Ukambani regions. Regional kingpins who were backing his presidential bid largely steered the support. In 2017, western Kenya – led by former vice president Musalia Mudavadi and long-time legislator Moses Wetangula – delivered the presidential vote to him. Kalonzo Musyoka, another former vice president and leader of Wiper Democratic Movement, drove the Ukambani region’s support to Raila. Musyoka was Raila’s running mate in both 2013 and 2017.

Four years later, the three have deserted Raila after dissolving the National Super Alliance (NASA), a coalition of four parties headed by the four.

Mudavadi, Musyoka and Wetangula have declared interest in running for the presidency and have joined hands with KANU’s Gideon Moi under the One Kenya Alliance. The former NASA partners also declined an invitation to attend Raila’s convention on 10 December, citing prior engagements. Moi attended the event as an expression of solidarity with Raila.

Should the defiant trio choose to run a presidential campaign on their own or unite with Ruto, Raila’s chances of clinching power could suffer a blow.

To stem this, Raila hopes to rally a national coalition of parties akin to Kibaki’s ‘magic machine’ – the National Rainbow Coalition of 2002.

“To put our country on the path of lasting unity, stability and prosperity, I hereby announce the launch of a movement anchored on the pillars of […] humility, brotherliness, unity, equality and productivity – [the] Azimio la Umoja Movement,” Raila told a cheering crowd.

Softening the environment

On 22 December, Parliament is expected to consider an amendment to the law that governs political parties ,to allow for creation of political coalitions that can field candidates in an election. At the moment, candidates must run on a specific political party ticket, unless they are independent candidates.

Should the law be amended, then Raila may have a chance to marshal a national movement of smaller political parties and make up for the lost support from his previous partners.

On the morning of the polls in August 2022, Raila will be 77; his energy of yesteryears appears lost. He is marching against an energetic Ruto who will be 55 at the time. They are both seeking to appeal to the youth who comprise a significant proportion of the voter population.

The seven months ahead will be a busy schedule for Raila as he seeks to woo unfamiliar voters, seek a reunion with former NASA principals, stem voter fatigue in his fifth stab, while hoping the apparent state support does not turn into the burden of incumbency.

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